I've suffered with spot-prone skin since my teens, with an angry bout of adult acne in my twenties. I tried everything in my quest for a clear complexion, switching my contraceptive pill, juicing, yoga, meditation and hundreds of different lotions and potions but nothing made a long-lasting difference. Interestingly, during a late-night Google search I did find a study that attributed acne to milk consumption and especially skimmed milk (cow’s milk and coffee go together like Fred and Ginger and you will not see me dancing off with an oat milk latte). Next day, I made a pact with myself to switch my skinny Americanos for full fat ones (a habit that has stuck) and it certainly helped ease my monthly hormonal breakouts. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop them completely. It wasn’t until, a couple of years back, I gave up face oils that I had any real, long-lasting, success.
Face Oil Revelation
It has long been mooted that oily skin likes oil, that slathering on a face oil won’t cause spots. Now I didn’t call this post “My View” for nothing, for some people a face oil is exactly what relieves them of their breakouts but not me. I was at ELLE at the time and within the space of a couple of weeks both dermatologist Dr. Rachael Eckel and facialist Kate Kerr told me in no uncertain terms to give up oil. Rachael explained that “with skin diseases like acne and rosacea, these patients have too much oil and lipid on the skin’s surface. The way to treat acne and rosacea is to dry it out and get rid of the oil.” Now, that doesn’t mean stripping the skin and leaving it dehydrated and sensitive, but carefully clearing the oil and hydrating the complexion with ingredients like hyaluronic acid should be my way to go. They were pretty adamant about going oil-free and very convincing in their argument that ditching it would relieve my blemish-blighted complexion.
Rachael is a strong believer that all oils are bad for skin and thinks we should take all the face oils out of our bathroom cabinet and “give them to someone we don’t like”. Think about it, before puberty our skin was oil-free and we didn’t get a single spot as a small child. Once puberty strikes “the glands are triggered to produce oil by the surge in testosterone, and this is when we see disease—acne, rosacea, blackheads and textural damage,” Rachael told me. “Oil is enemy number two of the skin after the sun. It causes inflammation, weakens the skin and causes sensitivity, irritation and dryness. Too much oil disrupts the barrier function in the skin,” she adds.
Kate told me it wasn’t just straight-up face oils, but any oil used as an ingredient in anything I put on my face, including makeup. Oh, boy, I was going to have to get INCI list savvy if I wanted a clearer complexion. As she was talking, I remembered back to when I worked at ELLE and, for a feature, I gave up moisturiser for three weeks. I religiously cleansed with Cerave, applied iS Clinical Active Serum (day and night) and used Heliocare SPF 50, a totally oil-free routine. My skin was tested before and after. Following the 21 days it was clearer, smoother and more hydrated than before. I really do believe skin can become lazy, reliant on creams to do its work for it, so a strategic product detox isn’t always a bad thing.
Trial and Error
It took some trial and error. I essentially cut out oil altogether and then gradually experimented with adding in different oil-based products to see what caused my skin to flare-up. I had finally cracked it but it’s easy to slip into old ways, my complexion got really good last year and I got lazy, I thought “I’ve got good skin now”. I started being a bit more free and easy with what I applied—a cleanser with oil here, even a straight up face oil there. My skin broke out terribly, confirming that rich oils really aren’t for me.
Whether it’s naturally-occurring sebum or a rich, plant-based oil, it’s not conducive to a healthy complexion. A healthy skin barrier is made of a delicate composition of water, lipid (fat and oil) and proteins, “if you screw this up and tip the balance, you basically blow holes in it. The wall becomes penetrable, allergens get in and all the precious water escapes,” says Rachael. It makes sense to look to products containing the skin-identical ingredients that it recognises. I always say “I’m not a plant”, I don’t think plant-based, oil-rich, skincare is necessarily better for our skin. To me it makes much more sense to feed the skin with the “chemicals” it contains already, recognises and knows what to do with: hyaluronic acid, ceramides, urea, glycerin and amino acids.
The Face Oil Compromise
Nowadays, I have reached a compromise (partly because I love It Cosmetics CC+ Illumination and Colbert MD Ilumino Anti Aging sheet masks too much). I know what I can and can’t put on my skin, I have hit a middle ground and while I’m always on high alert for oils, as long as they’re pretty far down the ingredient list (the ingredients are listed in order of proportion, so the first ingredient always makes up most of the formula) then I know they won’t wreak too much havoc. I’ve also found regular exfoliation keeps my skin cell turnover ticking along and spots at bay. For facials I go to see Kate Kerr who doesn’t use oils or PferfferSal, where they use a variety of brands that seem to suit my skin.
When it comes to oils you may use them, love them and have clear, glowing skin which is great since using oil is such a wonderful sensorial experience. But if you’re suffering with breakouts and feel lost, try an oil detox and see what happens. It’s pretty easy to spot oils in the ingredient list on products. These days I lean on hyaluronic acid for hydration (which is naturally-occuring in our skin), AHAs and BHAs to exfoliate and unclog pores and retinol for its general anti-ageing and skin-improving goodness.
What do you think about face oils? I’d love to know! Pop a comment in the box below.